San Francisco Chronicle

A new approach to pesky wild animals

New book shows how people try, and mostly fail, to exert control over wildlife

- By Gregory Thomas

“It’s in people’s conscience now that changing human behavior is the answer.” Mary Roach, author of “Fuzz”

Mary Roach was determined to feed the pigeon, maybe even a little desperate.

The greasy-feathered creature was marching in circles around our outdoor lunch table, a talon missing from one of its tiny red feet, while Roach, the best-selling author of a fistful of popular science books, tried to entice it with a pinch of sourdough pulled from her clam chowder bread bowl.

But gentle persuasion wasn’t working on this circumspec­t avian, and Roach’s tone turned firm.

“Do it. Come on, do it!” she implored. The bug-eyed bird steered itself out of reach again and Roach paused her provocatio­ns. “Chicken s—,” she said.

Classic July fog hung low over the bay. Roach met me at Fisherman’s Wharf to talk about her new book, “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law,” which examines how humans try — and usually fail — to contain, corral, redirect and generally manage nuisance wildlife around the globe, from the mountain lions that stalk California to the incorrigib­le gulls that rain poop on the Vatican.

It’s somewhat of a departure for 62-year-old Roach, whose bread and butter is dissecting the funky processes of human biology from various vantages: sex (“Bonk”); death (“Stiff ”); digestion (“Gulp”); space travel (“Packing for Mars”) and war (“Grunt”). So, why animals?

“I’d kind of run through the human body,” she said.

But her approach hasn’t changed. In “Fuzz,” she displays the curiosity, attention to detail and lightheart­ed amusement with her subject matter that has helped propel her books to best-seller lists.

Fisherman’s Wharf is typically laden with seagulls, pigeons, pelicans, sea lions and harbor seals — not to mention swarms of sightseers — so it felt like an appropriat­e rendezvous to spy the types of awkward animal-human interactio­ns Roach discusses in the book.

Candidly, we both hoped to observe savvy gulls snatching french

fries out of the hands of unsuspecti­ng tourists while, I assumed, we locals gleefully cackled from a distance. Roach has lived in the Bay Area for 30 years and knows how brazenly the sea birds here operate.

But the gulls weren’t showing. In fact, there was a conspicuou­s lack of them at the piers that day.

Tourists evaporated from Fisherman’s Wharf overnight when the pandemic struck and their return has come as more of a trickle than a flood. On the day we visited, the chowder houses that line Taylor Street were shuttered or empty. Roach and I milled around but found few gulls, let alone the kind of harassment we’d hoped to witness.

Maybe the year-long absence of available food scraps and wrappers had brought famine to the sky scavengers and temporaril­y turned them away, I hypothesiz­ed.

“Oh, those poor, hungry birds!” Roach replied.

If this was sarcasm, I was having trouble detecting it. It’s clear from “Fuzz” that Roach accepts and appreciate­s all kinds of creatures and holds a degree of admiration for the hardier ones that thrive among us, in spite of us — the rats and raccoons, the gulls and pigeons, the Presidio coyotes and Peninsula pumas.

“The ones that end up as ‘nuisance wildlife’ are the ones that have figured it out and outsmarted us as we try to mitigate them,” Roach said.

As Roach points out in the book, many of these animals wear the brand of varmints and vermin, a stigma assigned by the colonizers who pushed into the Western United States while shooting or snaring just about every creature in their path. To those newcomers, the animals that didn’t offer easy commerce or food were considered pests and treated accordingl­y.

“It’s hard to turn that (mindset) around,” she said.

But to many Americans in the 21st century, wildlife has come to represent exciting evidence of the vibrant natural world we have long suppressed. As many once-threatened species have rebounded under our protection, they have begun pressing back into our cities and towns — often clumsily, sometimes violently. The question now is, what do we do about them?

That inquiry is the bedrock of “Fuzz.”

“The reason we’re having problems now is that we’re doing well,” Roach said.

To illustrate the irony, the book focuses on several species-specific management efforts around the world: deterring bears from plundering trash cans in Aspen; tracking and counting mountain lions in California; dealing with elephants that occasional­ly trample field laborers in India; sterilizin­g population­s of “marauding” monkeys; warding off flocks of hungry birds; and more.

Roach presents these attempts as a mix of mayhem and success. But we’re making progress as a society, she said.

“It’s in people’s conscience now that changing human behavior is the answer, not changing animal behavior.”

The idea for “Fuzz” came to Roach a few years ago after she read a white paper on how investigat­ors discern counterfei­t tiger penises from the real deal, the controvers­ial type sometimes used in traditiona­l Chinese medicine.

“I thought, ‘That world of wildlife crime is interestin­g,’ ” she said.

And that was that. Reporting the book took Roach around the globe, sometimes in search of dangerous wildlife encounters. She filed her manuscript before the onset of the pandemic. The book hits shelves Tuesday.

Sitting and discussing wildlife-human interactio­ns with Roach is to stumble into the kinds of fun, obscure trivia that fill her books. Some examples from our conversati­on:

Delayed implantati­on: a superpower of female black bears that allows them to carry fertilized-egg cells in their uteruses for months without incubating. “Whether they (the eggs) implant in it come fall — and how many of them do — depends on the mother’s health and how well she’s been eating,” Roach writes.

Compensato­ry reproducti­on: a characteri­stic of coyotes, whereby the animals will bear pups only if there is enough available turf for them to range without impeding on a rival’s territory.

Arboreal manslaught­er: when a tree falls on a person and kills them.

Flight-initiation distance (FID): the distance at which a bird flees from perceived danger.

“For a while, I was going around the streets of Oakland to measure the FID” of various birds, Roach said. “You can get pretty close if you want to.”

Back on the restaurant patio at Fisherman’s Wharf, two pigeons and a sparrow wrestled with a ring of fried calamari at our feet. From an adjacent table, a tourist seated below a sign reading “Please Do Not Feed Birds” tossed bits of bread toward another hopeful pigeon.

The birds began gathering, but Roach remained at a stalemate with hers. Again, she presented the sourdough and the bird wobbled over warily.

“I’m closing the FID now,” Roach said.

Finally, the pigeon raised up and snatched the bread from her hand, avoiding direct beak-to-finger contact.

“Delicate touch!” she said, approvingl­y. Then smiled: “I am part of the problem.”

 ?? Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle ?? Author Mary Roach shifts her focus from human biology to wild animals in her latest work, “Fuzz.”
Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle Author Mary Roach shifts her focus from human biology to wild animals in her latest work, “Fuzz.”
 ?? W.W. Norton ??
W.W. Norton
 ?? Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle ?? In “Fuzz,” Mary Roach displays the curiosity and lightheart­ed amusement that has helped propel her books to best-seller lists.
Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle In “Fuzz,” Mary Roach displays the curiosity and lightheart­ed amusement that has helped propel her books to best-seller lists.

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